11 May 2018

The grammar school debate ignores what really works in education


The question about whether grammar schools help or hinder social mobility has, thanks to today’s news that the government is giving selective schools the chance to expand, sparked a great deal of debate.

This is obviously an important issue and people are right to be concerned about it. Education really does have the ability to change lives and there is a great deal of evidence which reveals the link between receiving a good education a child’s life chances.

I was fortunate enough to be born near a good state comprehensive school which had good resources and (mainly) great teachers. Just as importantly, I had a stable home life with parents and siblings who loved me. As a result, my brother and I were the first generation in our family to attend university.

Sadly, this is not the case for everyone. Children who are not born near a good state school, and whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school, will have no choice but to attend their local school – irrespective of how good it is. These children will have fewer life chances than their peers at outstanding state schools and private schools. Grammar schools have often been seen as a solution to this problem.

There is a great deal of debate about whether or not selective state schools improve social mobility. For every anecdote about how attending a grammar school transformed their life, there is one from somebody claiming that failing the 11 plus ruined theirs. As for the academic research, there is robust evidence that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and later earnings of those who get in. But there is equally good evidence that those in selective areas who don’t pass the eleven plus do worse than they would have done in a comprehensive system.

For example, academic research shows that earnings inequalities are wider for children born in selective areas during the 1960s and 1970s compared with those born in comprehensive areas. This comes from a combination of higher wages at the top of the distribution for individuals who grew up in selective areas and lower wages at the bottom.

More recent evidence comes from the expansion of grammar schools in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. This did raise average attainment over Northern Ireland as a whole, with a ten per cent increase in the number of pupils getting three or more A-Levels, driven mainly by improved performance amongst those newly able to go to grammar schools. However, the reform also widened educational inequalities with a decline in the performance of pupils not able to go to grammar schools.

So, it appears that selective schools such as grammars could be a way to boost the attainment of bright students from modest backgrounds. However, those who fail to get in would likely have fewer life chances than under the current system.

These are important considerations, but they are diverting attention away from the most important issues in education.

To focus on returning to the system of the past is to completely miss the point. We need to ensure that every child has access to an outstanding school, regardless of their background or ability. The market provides a solution. We need to introduce an element of competition between educational providers which will increase choice for parents and, therefore, improve standards.

The coalition government’s reforms such as free schools were a huge step in the right direction, but they did not go far enough. We need to remove barriers to entry by simplifying the free school authorisation process, ending all the unnecessary bureaucracy.

Funding is, of course, vitally important. Despite the vast sums the Government spends on education, papers and news programmes often report on how underfunded the school system is, with stories about cash-strapped schools being forced to ask parents to make financial contributions.

Greater financial discipline is another reason the Government should open up the system to for-profit operators. The success of these types of schools in the United States has been down to their ability to read and respond to market signals and their willingness to build their services around the student, whom they treat as a customer. For-profits have a distinct advantage over nonprofits in that they are exposed to the full force of the market.

Market forces, communicated in the form of prices and the “bottom line”, allow for-profits to gather, process,and act on information efficiently. Due to the abundance of information condensed into market prices, for-profits can maximise the allocation of their resources simply by looking at what students are willing to pay and how much it costs to provide their service, and then trying to maximise their bottom line accordingly.

This leads to economically efficient outcomes and gives for-profits an edge over nonprofits, which do not have profits and losses, and therefore must devise alternative, costly, and bureaucratic ways of determining where to direct their resources.  Although most funding does now follow pupils, this should be expanded to incentivise schools to attract students. The best way to do this would be to offer parents a voucher which they could use at any school, including private schools.

Such a system has been adopted in various countries around the world. In Sweden they were shown to improve standards in state schools due to increased competition. This was also the case in Florida. Furthermore, when vouchers were introduced in Chile in the 1980’s it resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of pupils attending private schools.

Education is vitally important and not enough children in the UK have access to a high-quality school. The debate about whether or not grammar schools are good for social mobility distracts attention away from more effective solutions.

We need to introduce real choice and allow the market to produce outstanding schools and ensure every child gets a world-class education.

Ben Ramanauskas is Policy Analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.